Right now, most people are focused on an economic recovery and liking the signs they see, but marine scientists are also excited about a different kind of recovery: a coral reef that is gradually restoring itself back to health. The economic value of coral reefs should not be underestimated either. Many important fisheries rely on coral habitat, as does the tourist industry.
A few years ago, the world's remotest coral reef of the Phoenix Islands, part of the Republic of Kiribati - in the Pacific - experienced a coral die-off event known as bleaching. This is when the tiny plants (algae) that live within the coral and provide it with the nutrients it needs, die, and the corals turn white without their symbiotic plant support. Coral bleaching is induced by warming waters. With ocean temperatures increasing around the world, scientists have long feared for the future of our coral reefs, with some estimating that warm water corals could be gone by 2050 if we continue to warm our water and not control our CO2 emissions. Corals are also impacted by the increasing acidity of our oceans, as the oceans absorb our pollution. We will be telling this important story in our new temporary exhibition opening in March 2010.
So scientists on a return trip to the Phoenix Islands recently were astonished and delighted to find that over half of the coral reef had regenerated and was teeming with life; corals are critical habitat for so many creatures.
The region is being proposed as a World Heritage Site, and perhaps this additional protection may have some benefits. But what is really important here is the ability of our ecosystems to self heal, if left alone from human interference. Marine scientists have been saying that this is true for some time - and other examples - closing areas to fishing, species protection etc. have shown it time and time again. But this is yet another example of how nature knows best and if we can allow it space and time, it can recover and renew.